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Swedish novelist spills out engrossing intrigue

A pastor's body is found hanging from the organ loft of her church. Who has rid the town of this meddlesome minister?

By Asa Larsson

Delacorte. 352 pp. $22

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Reviewed by Desmond Ryan

Tax lawyers may excel at the more arcane forms of creative fiction, but they are rarely found among the ranks of successful crime novelists.

After toiling in high finance and then forging a second career as a writer, the Swedish novelist Asa Larsson is proving a happy and admirable exception.

The setting of The Blood Spilt - which follows her well-received debut, Sun Storm - is urgently contemporary, but Larsson surely found some inspiration in an ancient and more celebrated case of bloodletting. In 1170, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral after Henry II vented his frustration to his courtiers by famously demanding, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The murder by some of the more literal-minded members of the king's entourage did more than give us a Catholic martyr. It prompted writers from Chaucer to P.D. James and, of course, T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral to explore the seemingly endless possibilities offered by the figure of the minister and his often mutinous and hostile flock. One man's principled stand on faith can all too often seem like unconscionable interference to the disgruntled parishioners in the pews.

James couched one of her best recent works in such a conflict in a windswept Anglican seminary in Death in Holy Orders. With The Blood Spilt , we can savor a dolorous Nordic variation on this pliant theme.

With this second novel, Larsson stakes a strong claim to a prominent place among first-rate Scandinavian masters of densely textured mysteries that take a view of the human condition that's best described as cautious pessimism.

While the situation posed by Larsson may not be startlingly original, The Blood Spilt is notable for its psychological authenticity and insight and for an evocative sense of place that elevates location - in this case the town of Kiruna in the Swedish mountains - to a major element in the narrative.

Although the central figure in The Blood Spilt is Rebecka Martinsson, the young lawyer introduced in Sun Storm, Larsson unfolds events from several constantly shifting perspectives. This entails some loss of narrative propulsion, but the deftly drawn characters are ample compensation.

The pastor who pays for meddling in this case is Mildred Nillson, a woman with an almost flawless knack for ruffling local feathers. Even in outwardly egalitarian Sweden, Mildred's efforts to galvanize the women of Kiruna into greater self-assertion creates much seething resentment, and there are others who have their own reasons for despising her. As Rebecka returns to Kiruna on business, Nillson's body is found hanging from the organ loft of her church.

The homicide investigation is in the charge of another no-nonsense woman, Anna-Maria Mella, the local police inspector. But The Blood Spilt is no tale of feminist vindication. It becomes instead a literate exploration of the motives and mind-set that lead to a gallery of fallible suspects.

As with James, the pleasure of The Blood Spilt lies not in the resolution but in the many discoveries in the journey that precedes it.